Each Terrence Malick film concerns a lost or squandered Eden: the sleepy suburbia shattered by teenage nihilism in Badlands (1973); the idyllic panhandle farmland set ablaze out of jealousy and disillusionment in Days of Heaven (1978); the harmonious Pacific island transformed into a theater of carnage in The Thin Red Line (1998); America itself in The New World (2005).
These are majestic visions of man's relationship to the paradise he longs for — and only occasionally experiences.
Such epic dimensions were there from the start of Malick's directorial career. With a background in philosophy but only a few screenwriting credits and an AFI-produced short under his belt, Malick announced a wholly original sensibility in Badlands by completely inverting the doomed-romantic-outlaw narrative, emphasizing the social and environmental pressures of a small Eisenhower-era South Dakota town on Sissy Spacek's timid teenage outcast and Martin Sheen's vacuously rebellious murderer while eschewing countercultural martyrdom.
Seeking private sanctuaries outside society, the numbed couple only turn their forestal and desert hideouts into pretty but lonely prisons.
Spacek — one of several Malick collaborators introducing his work during LACMA's retrospective — provides Badlands' voice-over: flat, accented and eerily naive. Narration quickly became a signature element of Malick's style. It also lends Days of Heaven its distinct tone, via Linda Manz's conversational yet Chicago–street tough teenage narrator.
As a quartet of restless souls (Manz, Brooke Adams, Richard Gere and Sam Shepard) contend with class envy, deception and childhood naïveté on a Texas wheat farm on the eve of World War I, Days masterfully progresses from Western reverie to Shakespearean tragedy.
Having crafted a veritable masterpiece, its director seemed to be hitting his stride. But when in the late '70s and early '80s the New Hollywood renaissance faded and many of its brightest auteurs were forced to compromise with an increasingly blockbuster-obsessed film industry, Malick dropped out.
His mysterious 20-year absence from filmmaking raised his name to legendary status; when he returned, he returned big. Employing a Hollywood who's who (Sean Penn, James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, George Clooney) to unorthodox effect (many recognizable names exist at the margins of the frame), The Thin Red Line (1998) radically recast the World War II combat film as a metaphysical rumination on the essence of man — not simply an antiwar movie but an anti–war movie war movie that looks far beyond the battlefield for meaning and measure. The New World (2005) similarly operates in the mode of historical epic, fashioning the romance between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) into a rich Emersonian origin myth of geographical, cultural and spiritual discovery.
As possibly the only American director creating poetry for the multiplex — big-budget, star-studded projects in the service of rapturous considerations on the duality of nature — Malick sometimes stumbles when earnestly striving for transcendental wonder: Ben Chaplin's sunlight-drenched recollections in The Thin Red Line border on kitsch, and I don't think anyone could make dialogue like The New World's “You flow through me, like a river” not sound corny. Indeed, such heart-on-sleeve lyricism has proved Malick's work intensely divisive, generating mostly either hyperbolic, do-no-wrong praise or dismissive cynicism.
But that's only because Malick consistently aims for what few filmmakers dare even try: the full range of cinematic possibility, from visceral, sensual imagism to ontological and epistemological verbal inquiry. How the upcoming The Tree of Life might expand on his monumental ambition I have no idea, but it's a testament to Malick's power that the film's haunting, mysterious trailer is already among the best films of the decade.
THE ELEMENTAL CINEMA OF TERRENCE MALICK | May 12-14, May 20 | Bing Theater at LACMA | LACMA.org